Towers of Techno-Babble

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:25

    through Aug. 1 at the SignatureTheater, 555 W. 42nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-PLAY. Towers of Techno-Babble The theater has a troubledrelationship to new technology. Not that most of its practitioners are particularlyconservative-quite the contrary-but there is an abiding conservatism in theform itself. The technical advances theaters have incorporated over the centuries,such as steel rigging, gas and electric light and hydraulic lifts, have invariablyenhanced the art as it already existed. They didn't change its basic anthropocentric,language-based storytelling nature, and the same is true of most of the practicesco-opted from the avant-garde through this century. The marvels of the mediaage are completely different, though: video and digitally altered video andsound, large-screen projection and holography, to name the most obvious examples.Like an Elvis lookalike at a bar mitzvah, such accouterments tend to take overthe theater experience, asserting themselves over all mundane human content.As Marshall McLuhan warned more than three decades ago, new media don't merelycarry messages, but tend to displace them. They're like robotic egomaniacs thatresist being used merely to supplement or embellish stories enacted by livingpeople in real time, despite the existence of a few brilliant exceptions, suchas Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group, who understand the intricate tightropegame of balancing live and mediated humans. The prevalence of multimediatheater groups today has less to do with public demand than with the fact thatnew technology has become a winning grant-application strategy. The dominant"oh wow" school of reviewers also stands ever eager to hail anythingelectronically mediated as "cutting edge." The quick celebrity affordedmixed-media artists-and art critics are greater culprits on this score thantheater critics-conveys the impression that human-scale storytelling skills,usually honed over years in the past, are no longer necessary at all as longas the expensive electronic toys are themselves entertaining enough. Besides,no one in the info age has time for apprenticeships. This is why it sometimesseems as though there's an abundance of work of the caliber of the Wooster Groupout there when, actually, there's almost none. I go avidly to see JohnJesurun's pieces whenever they appear, because he always seems capable of achievingthe tricky balance mentioned above, usually falling just short. Most often,though, I come across vacuous and self-important spectacles of carts pullinghorses, such as GAle GAtes' Tilly Losch, Robert Lepage's Elsinoreand La Fura dels Baus' F@ust: Version 3.0 (performed at last year'sLincoln Center Festival)-to mention only a few recent banquets that neglectedto provide real food. Such events always remind me of wannabe novelists withexpensive computers but nothing to say, or kids who can't pass algebra walkingaround with calculators capable of 50 advanced math functions. 3-Legged Dog is a New York-basedmultimedia theater company founded in 1994 by Kevin Cunningham, Mike Taylorand Jill Szuchmacher. I haven't seen their work before, and I try not to prejudge anyone. I did grow pretty skeptical, though, after reading in the program toAutomatic Earth that the company considers line-production of (notparticipation in) the New York State Governor's Conference on Art and Technologyto be one of its major credits. It also didn't help to learn (from a 1998 articlein The Villager supplied with the press materials) that the origin ofthe company's name is a mishap suffered by Cunningham's pit bull Sid, who losta leg while chasing a car. Sid's accident might strike some people as a signthat the dogged pursuit of technology can be harmful; Cunningham saw it ratheras "a metaphor for the artist, and what's needed...persistence in the faceof adversity." Happily, Automatic Earth,written by Cunningham and directed by Rick Mordecon, isn't entirely vacuous.It has an interesting premise, snatches of lovely writing, at least two excellentactors and captivating 16-by-24-foot video images that actually illuminate theenacted story at times. Those times, alas, are much too fleeting and scatteredto save the images from seeming arbitrary and trivially rooted in science-envy(fast-action weather-satellite pictures, for instance, and moving graphics supposedlybased on chaos theory), and the well-written speeches (spoken mostly by a brain-damagedcentral character) are surrounded by thudding cliches and glaring narrativeoversights. The first live tableau,which follows contemplative preshow footage of rushing clouds and the soundof wind, is savagely comic: a man (P.J. Sosko) quivering on the floor with apitchfork through his head. This is Vining, it turns out, victim of a horriblefarm accident who is taken to an upstate New York mental hospital where callousdoctors, thug-like attendants and a crowd of inmates who mill about, occupiedwith various bizarre and disgusting obsessions, erase with triteness whateverinterest the harsh comedy had to begin with. Vining is (of course) a poeticsoul whose complexity the institutional yahoos can't fathom, but as he slowlyregains language-incessantly writing and then speaking in aphasic jumbles reminiscentof the patients in Arthur Kopit's Wings and Susan Yankowitz's NightSky-he briefly touches souls (and bodies) with a fellow inmate named Cabid(C.P. Thornhill), a pathological "biter." Then he's thrown out intothe cold, cruel world. The show establishes a parallelbetween Vining's journey (from accident to recovery to post-hospital wanderings)and the development of a category-five hurricane (from the belch of a cannibalisticfrog in Mali to various air currents it affects to continent-sized cloud-swirlsand tornado-force winds). Trouble is, the often stunning weather footage andscientific graphics, some beautifully altered, are described and discussed exclusivelyby an anomalous, techno-babbling female narrator (Vera Beren) who strips downto ever sexier clothing while perched on a spiral staircase to the side andseems much less intent on clarifying causes or principles than on proving thatshe too has a poetic soul (after all, she's wearing a slip!). At one point,for instance, she speaks of the hurricane's "harsh spirals of auto-cannibalismalong its inner eye wall," a facile, undigested reference to the frog'sand Cabid's cannibalism (it seems), which clunks inertly like the dozens ofother wooden nickels she drops. With the hospital inmatesremaining inexplicably onstage the entire time, Vining has a short affair witha drifter and former stripper named Chester (Sara Parry), whom he meets on theroad-a sequence so touchingly acted by Sosko and Parry that it briefly mademe think the whole show-offy, half-understood science pageant might actuallytransform into a play. Then the plot utterly degenerates, as Chester leaveshim, he befriends a stereotypical junkie-artist named Jerry (Stephen Payne)in Houston and almost finds Chester again while manacled Cabid is seen receivingcopies of Vining's cryptic poems. The ending is a digressive hodgepodge of handwringingby Chester and Jerry and a long, impossible-to-follow monologue by Vining abouta perfect landscape. No question of patching things up here with revising andediting. The very basic problem is that Cunningham never really thought throughhow all his nifty weather videos, digital effects and technospeak could form a meaningful backdrop to any volitional human journey. The playwright Max Frischonce quipped that "technology...[is] the knack of so arranging the worldthat we don't have to experience it." For two and a half millennia, goodplaywriting has been the knack of so arranging stories about human life thateven the most thick-skinned can't help but experience them. The battle lineshave long been drawn, and the enduring multimedia artists, like all successfulpeacemakers, will be those who listen respectfully and imaginatively to thedemands of both sides. Freedom of the City Aristocratsby Brian Friel Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov adapted by BrianFriel Lincoln Center Festival (closed) Three out of four of thetheater offerings in this year's Lincoln Center Festival were packaged as a"Brian Friel Festival" and consisted of imported Irish productions of playsby the Irish playwright. My own reaction to Friel's work over the years hasbeen mixed, but my memories of Molly Sweeney and Dancing at Lughnasa were fondenough to make me curious about these Gate and Abbey Theater productions ofworks rarely produced in the U.S. The two early plays, TheFreedom of the City (1973) and Aristocrats (1979)-both done in whollycompetent productions-turned out to be (on the one hand) dated and painfullyobvious and (on the other) touching, if a bit windy and obviously imitativeof Chekhov. In Freedom of the City, a protest against the injustice ofBloody Sunday and its biased investigation by the British government, three civil rights protesters in 1970 seek shelter in the Derry Guildhall after Britishsoldiers attack the crowd. Friel treats the protesters, who are mistaken forarmed terrorists and killed, as utterly innocent victims, and the soldiers,investigating judge and an "expert" sociology professor as wholly duplicitousor clueless-the most boring recipe for a drama I can imagine, regardless ofthe truth about Bloody Sunday. In Aristocrats, setin the mid-1970s, a similar oblivious professor visits an aristocratic IrishCatholic family in decline and misses what's really important in their fantasies,lies and quirky personalities because he's preoccupied with such factual questionsas "What political clout did they wield?" Aristocrats has exactly theassets and drawbacks I've come to think of as typical of Friel: thoroughly engagingcharacters involved in a plot that often feels derivative and undermines itspotentially strong emotional impact by dotting every "i." The surprise of the festival,for me, was the strength of Friel's adaptation of Chekhov himself. His new versionof Uncle Vanya was smoothly clear, appropriately acerbic and eminentlyactable. He made a few unfortunate choices that broaden some of Chekhov's economicaldetails, such as expanding the role of Telegin into a clownish fool who harpson his own perspiration and makes idiotic jokes about Germans. In general, though,Friel was obviously guided by his good sense of speakability and the steadybuild of the characters' disappointments and heartbreaks. The Gate Theater production,directed by Ben Barnes, was somewhat cold, as widely reported, but the chiefreason for that seemed to me a dreadfully miscast Elena (Susannah Harker), whosestiff, phony gestures and utterly uncompelling inertia made nonsense of themen's attraction to her. Vanya (Niall Buggy), Astrov (John Kavanagh) and Sonya(Donna Dent) were all deeply original and wholly convincing, though, and thevery memorable evening almost made up for Freedom of the City.